Thursday, January 12, 2006

Property rights in Canada? Liberals forfend!

Stephen Harper's tantalizing suggestion of enshrining property rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms during Monday's leaders debate has sparked no particularly great interest in coverage of the election campaign — which isn't to suggest that Canadians do not value their property accordingly but only that the subject of property rights has not reposed in the popular debates in this country for a very long time. With any due diligence, however, the mere allusion by Harper will mean that any broaching of constitutional subjects in the future will require defending the proposition that Canadians should not have property rights.

Interestingly, the Liberals have already begun to do so. From the Liberal Party press room:

Mr. Harper’s radical proposal to include property rights in the Charter could be used to strike down laws that protect workers, children, unions and the environment.

[…] Mr. Harper’s proposal to “protect” property rights borrows heavily from radical right-wing conservatives today in the United States who want to use the “protection” of property rights to prevent the United States government from regulating.
How alarming! How… American! The use of quotation marks around the word “protect” could be taken to suggest contempt for the idea that property rights can be protected by inclusion within the Charter — an argument that could rightfully be taken up, along with an argument about the effectuality of protecting all the privileges and immunities that the Charter already purports to advance. I think it far more likely, however, that they only connote a general disdain for both the subject and object of the proposition, Stephen Harper and property rights. But does anyone really believe that property rights are the implement of "radical right-wing" American conservatives? Well, Paul Martin apparently does:
Mr. Harper, during the debates, said that he would like to introduce property rights into the Charter. That is very clearly a right-wing U.S. conservative policy. It is one that essentially … put at risk a number of major issues that are very important to this country.
Terence Corcoran, in my opinion the most consistently enjoyable editorialist in Canada, tears down the Liberals' straw man in today's Financial Post by posing the question, "what issues?" From Property wrongs:
When Mr. Martin claims property rights might prevent governments from acting, he is exactly right. That is the core reason for a Charter of Rights — to lay down a basic law that protects the people from abusive and oppressive government.
Paul Martin and Canadians play a good game of talking up the rights of minorities, disabled people, aboriginals, homosexuals, cultures, nationalities, etc. Of what use are these rights when the law under which they appeal for equal protection and equal benefit does not respect or even acknowledge the rights of individuals? Of course, what Paul Martin means when righteously defending the inviolability of the Charter are in fact immunities and not precisely rights — any debate on property rights in this country should consider the distinction between rights and privileges or immunities. Reckless exaltation of property rights without due reflection will inevitably lead to a wilfull misinterpretation of those rights to include competing privileges — an NDP-style spin, for example, could quite conceivably confuse property itself with property rights and construe the latter as the right to have houses. But, to his credit, I don't think that's what Paul Martin had in mind when he delivered a speech at the Allen & Co. Conference in 2004:
[…] the sine qua non of domestic investment is the same as it is for foreign investment and that is confidence in the structures of public institutions, private property rights, the rule of law that ensures stability and freedom from corruption. It is estimated that the property held by the poorest of the poor in the world exceeds by a factor by 200 to 1 all the foreign aid that can be provided. The problem is that nobody has property rights. [Emphasis added.]
Like everything else, though, it remains to be discovered what he did mean…

Update: Yet another link to Colby Cosh, but it's not gratuitous… really.
Martin went on, later in the press conference, to describe Harper's proposal for entrenched constitutional property rights as a "right-wing, American-style" idea. You know, like church-state separation or freedom of the press. I realize the U.S. is our neighbour, not our nation, but there can be no excuse for Martin not to know that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a major source of frustration for American conservatives. It explicitly permits private property to be taken for public use, and American politicians have consequently been rather freer than ours in exercising "eminent domain." At this point in history, property rights may enjoy stronger formal protection in Communist China than they do in the United States.

[…] Martin was spared tougher questions that might have followed. No one, for instance, asked him how he can fearmonger about the United States while making American-style judicial supremacy the main plank of his own platform.